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A photo journey through North Korea

Published December 23, 2012 10:06 am

A photographer gives his take on a closed, communist nation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pyongyang, North Korea • My window on North Korea is sometimes, quite literally, a window — of a hotel room, the backseat of a car, a train. Fleeting moments of daily life present themselves suddenly, and they are opportunities to show a side of the country that is entirely at odds with the official portrait of marching troops and tightly coordinated pomp that the Pyongyang leadership presents to the world. 

In April, I was part of a group of international journalists that traveled by train to the launch site for this year's first, failed rocket test. We traveled in a spotless train used by the Communist leadership, and I spent the five-hour journey inside my sleeper car looking out the large, clean window at a rural landscape seen by few foreign eyes. The tracks cut across fields where large groups of farmers were at work in clusters. Occasionally, there was a plow drawn by oxen or a brick-red tractor rolling along the gravel roads. On a rocky hilltop above the train tracks, a small boy sprinted and waved at the passing train. Every few hundred yards along the entire route, local officials in drab coats stood guard, their backs to the tracks, until its cargo of foreign reporters had safely passed. 

I have made 17 trips into North Korea since 2000, including six since The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang opened in January 2012. It is an endlessly fascinating and visually surreal place, but it is also one of the hardest countries I have ever photographed. As one of the few international photographers with regular access to the country, I consider it a huge responsibility to show life there as accurately as I can.  

That can be a big challenge. Foreigners are almost always accompanied by a government guide — a "minder" in journalistic parlance — who helps facilitate our coverage requests but also monitors nearly everything we do. Despite the official oversight, we try to see and do as much as we can, push the limits, dig as deeply as possible, give an honest view of what we are able to see. Over time, there have been more and more opportunities to leave the showplace capital, Pyongyang, and mingle with the people. But they are usually wary of foreigners and aware that they too are being watched. 

This has been a historic year for North Korea, with large-scale dramatic displays to mark important milestones, struggles with food shortages, crippling floods, drought and typhoons, as well as growing evidence that people's lives are changing in small but significant ways. But in a country that carefully choreographs what it shows to the outside world, separating what is real from what is part of the show is often very difficult.

Last spring, as North Korea was preparing for the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, citizens practiced for weeks, even months, for the large-scale military parade and public folk dancing that was part of the celebration.

One morning, on our way through town, we saw small groups of performers walking home from an early rehearsal. They wore their brightly colored traditional clothing, but covered over with warm winter coats. In their hands were the red bunches of artificial flowers that they shake and wave in honor of country's leaders during mass rallies.

From the van window, I saw a woman standing alone, holding her bouquet as she waited for the bus. It was, to me, a more telling moment than the actual events we would cover a week later, a simple but provocative glimpse into one person's life.

For this project, I used a Hasselblad XPAN, a panoramic-view film camera that is no longer manufactured. Throughout the year, I wore it around my neck and shot several dozen rolls of color negative film in between my normal coverage of news and daily life with my AP-issued digital cameras.

The XPAN is quiet, discrete, manual and simple. Because it has a wide panoramic format, it literally gives me a different view of North Korea. The film also reflects how I feel when I'm in North Korea, wandering among the muted or gritty colors, and the fashions and styles that often seem to come from a past generation. 

In my photography, I try to maintain a personal point of view, a critical eye, and shoot with a style that I think of as sometimes-whimsical and sometimes-melancholy. My aim is to open a window for the world on a place that is widely misunderstood and that would otherwise rarely be seen by outsiders.

I hope these images help people to develop their own understanding of the country, one that goes beyond the point-counterpoint presented by Pyongyang and Washington. And maybe they can help create some sort of bridge between the people of North Korea and the rest of the world.

Award-winning photographer David Guttenfelder is AP's chief photographer for Asia. He is based in Tokyo but makes frequent trips to North Korea to run AP's photo operations there.